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Ecotourists Have Changed Stingrays’ Behavior—And Not for the Better

There might be a dark side to the so-called “interactive ecotourism” business

smithsonian.com

Image: Paul-W

Humans love a good, well-monitored interaction with nature. For stingrays at Stingray City—a string of Grand Cayman sandbars that’s become a famous tourist destination—the deal isn’t half bad, either. Humans feed the rays every day, to ensure that they’ll come back and slide their slippery wings along visitors’ legs. But there might be a dark side to this “interactive ecotourism” business. Researchers who looked at Stingray City show that the rays there are diverging from their wild kin in ways that make them dependent on humans.

This isn’t all that surprising. First, wild stingrays are nocturnal. Stingrays at Stingray City are not. Wild stingrays are solitary. About 164 rays now live in the the quarter square mile that makes up Stingray City. In the wild, rays avoid one another, mate once a year and very rarely show aggression towards other rays. At Stingray City, they’re pregnant all year round, rub up against one another and bite each other relatively frequently. All this surprised the researchers. They say in a press release:

“We saw some very clear and very prominent behavioral changes, and were surprised by how these large animals had essentially become homebodies in a tiny area,” said study co-author Mahmood Shivji, director of the Guy Harvey Research Institute and NSU Oceanographic Center professor, who led the study.

Which probably isn’t good for the stingrays, really. “There are likely to be some health costs that come with these behavior changes, and they could be detrimental to the animals’ well-being in the long term,” Shivji told the press office. The researchers are hoping that by studying the ways an ecotourism destination like Stingray City changes stingray behavior, managers can better design the experience for both humans and their winged friends. The study reports:

Because feeding of marine wildlife on a regular and sustained basis for tourism is widespread and continuing to expand, understanding the impacts of these activities on the target marine organisms and associated ecosystems will be useful to help managers plan mitigating measures where these activities exist, and exercise precautionary policies where new feeding sites are proposed.

Changing the ways of ecotourism will be hard though. Each individual stingray at Stingray City generates $500,000 each year in tourism for the area. Guy Harvey, researcher and founder of the Guy Harvey Research Institute, said that understanding these animals is key:

“Right now, these animals have no protection at all,” Harvey said. “Without more studies like these, we won’t know what that means for the wildlife or if we need to take action. It’s unclear how much of the stingray’s daily diet comes from tourism provided food, but the good news is we have seen the animals forage when tourists are absent suggesting that these animal are not completely dependent on these handouts.”

Because should humans suddenly develop a fondness for parrots rather than rays, and leave these poor fish alone, they would probably die.

More from Smithsonian.com:

Swim Like a Stingray

About Rose Eveleth
Rose Eveleth

Rose Eveleth is a writer for Smart News and a producer/designer/ science writer/ animator based in Brooklyn. Her work has appeared in the New York Times, Scientific American, Story Collider, TED-Ed and OnEarth.

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